Biology course choices

Natural Sciences at Cambridge is exceptionally flexible in that first year students can study almost any aspect of the sciences in any combination. The idea behind this is that students should take this opportunity to explore what interests them before specialising. Second-year courses do not require specific 1A courses to have been taken, but some are clearly strong recommendations. In particular, for any prospective biologist Evolution & Behaviour is essential. Anyone with an interest in any form of biology (from molecular or cellular biology through to ecology and palaeontology) will need this course as it provides the underpinnings for all modern biology. It is also the only first year course to cover population genetics and to explicitly encourage critical scientific thought. Recommended 1A combinations are:

- biological interests - Cells + Evolution & Behaviour + Physiology - the ideal biological combination, leads into cell biology, genetics, development, pathology, neurobiology, animal biology, plant sciences, ecology

- molecular biology or biochemical interests - Cells + Chemistry + Evolution & Behaviour - leads into biochemistry, cell biology, genetics, development

- large-scale biological interests - Evolution & Behaviour + Earth Sciences + Cells or Physiology - an obvious selection if interested in ecology or large-scale evolutionary processes

- chemical (rather than biochemical) interests - Chemistry + Cells + Physiology - the normal selection for prospective chemists

For those with less specific interest at this stage Cells + Chemistry + Evolution & Behaviour provides as broad an overview of the biological-chemical sciences as possible.

Biology of Cells - an obviously useful foundation course for biology. This develops from the basic concepts of cell structure and biochemistry to genetics, molecular biology, development and communication. This is a good background for 1B courses in Cell & Development Biology, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, Physiology, and Plant & Microbial Sciences.

Chemistry - the basis for chemistry and molecular aspects of biology. This builds on knowledge from A-level and similar courses to develop a greater understanding of chemical structure, reactions, thermodynamics and kinetics. This provides the basis for further study of Chemistry at 1B and supports Cell & Development Biology, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology.

Computer Sciences - this course is not normally taken by biologists and only occasionally by physicists. Most students taking this are surprised to find it is largely a theoretical mathematical course and not a practical programming course. It should only be taken if this is a primary interest.

Earth Sciences - for many this is an interesting course because it is largely unfamiliar. It provides an introduction to the history of the Earth and other planets, covering plate tectonics, magmatism, metamorphism, atmosphere and ocean process, climate change, erosion, sedimentation and palaeontology. This course builds on some aspects of A-level Geology but does not require a geological background.

Evolution & Behaviour - biologists will normally be expected to take this course; it covers fundamental concepts and prioritises original thought; it is the only 1A course to explicitly require students to question the evidence. This course starts with evolutionary theory and population genetics before covering the main steps in evolution of all living things, from the origins of life, plants and the main animal groups, ending with human origins. Animal behaviour is also included, with evolutionary aspects covering sexual selection, evolution of social behaviour, classical studies of the mechanics of learning and the flexibility of memory. Of all 1A courses, this is the most distinctive and students taking E&B find it the most stimulating of all their courses. Second year Animal Biology and Ecology courses build on Evolution & Behaviour, and it is also particularly useful for Physiology, Plant & Microbial Sciences and is the only 1A course to cover evolutionary genetics. Any student intending to pursue biological options beyond the first year should take this course.

Material Sciences - this is mainly a physics course and is very rarely taken by biologists. It is sometimes considered by those with interests in chemistry but although the course does contain a section on atomic structure many students find it less relevant to chemistry than expected. It should only be taken by those with a strong interest in physical materials.

Physics - although a possible course choice this is very rarely taken by biologists. Any Peterhouse biology applicant intending to take this needs to request a physics interview as well as the standard biology interviews.

Physiology of Organisms - this gives a detailed introduction to the main physiological processes underlying all living organisms, including membrane structure and ion flow, nerve activity, senses, movement, water transport, nutrition and photosynthesis, and homeostasis. A large proportion of this material is introduced in A-level Biology, with the addition of a comparative aspect, covering bacteria, protists and fungi, as well as plants and animals. It is a highly competitive course covering a phenomenal amount of descriptive detail, and the comparative aspect is particularly useful, although it has no evolutionary content. The difficulty of assimilating the sheer amount of detailed material in this course should not be under-estimated and it should only be selected as a first choice course. Those who take it as a third choice usually struggle. This course complements 1A Evolution & Behaviour and supports 1B Physiology and some aspects of Animal Biology, Biology of Disease, Neurobiology and Plant & Microbial Sciences.


Justin Gerlach by e-mail